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Eye on Mars, man on a mission

- Nasa scientist from city to science congress: dream big and attract best brains

He thinks man won’t be setting foot on Mars “anytime soon” but Calcutta boy Amitabh Ghosh leaves his imprint on Mission Red Planet every day of his life as a Nasa scientist.

“We should not be too outcome-driven. It’s a journey, if it’s not successful, you should not quit. In Nasa, we have had so many reverses,” the 43-year-old told a rapt audience on the concluding day of the 100th Indian Science Congress.

Ghosh should know. He has been a key member of Nasa’s Mars missions since 1996, going through many disappointments before Curiosity killed the Martian cat called Jinx last August.

While Mars rover Curiosity has made it to the Red Planet, the chairman of the science operations working group at Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission believes sending humans there might not be possible for another decade. “But it will happen some day when space technology can be achieved at a reasonable cost,” declared Ghosh, delivering a lecture on Destination Mars: In search of life and water on the Red Planet.

Till then, Nasa would continue its “robust multi-year Mars programme”, including a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020, he said.

For Ghosh, the journey to the Red Planet started in 1996 with the Mars Global Survey Mission. As for everyone else associated with various Mars missions over the years, the moment of truth and triumph for the IIT Kharagpur alumnus came “when it was possible to land there”.

“It was like a paradigm shift that changed the course of space exploration. That is an unbelievable experience. I was 27 years old when Pathfinder happened, and there was this Hollywood movie by Kevin Costner, Waterworld, that was shot with a budget of $240 million. Nasa had been given $200 million to land (a rover) on Mars. There were people who said, ‘C’mon, get real’. And yet you succeed,” he reminisced.

But how do the hardened pros of space research handle the disappointments that precede pathbreaking success? “In the end, science is a personal journey. It’s not about awards or recognition. If nothing happened after that I would have been just as happy,” Ghosh said.

As a geologist, getting the opportunity to analyse the first rock from Mars was an “out-of-the-world experience” for someone pursuing the Martian dream.

“For the first time a human being was analysing a rock from that planet…. When Steve Jobs had hired the Pepsi chief, he asked him, ‘Do you want to sell sugar water or do you want to change the world?’ It’s something like that.”

Ghosh’s message to India’s science fraternity isn’t much different from what Jobs had told his recruit. “What are all these missions? Just a set of talented people working together. I was in IIT Mumbai recently and I saw most of the young talented people moving to management. I hope they come back to their core disciplines,” he said on the sidelines of the science congress.

A robust space programme, Ghosh said, would do justice to the “huge interest among the young” in exploring the frontiers of science. “A space programme can transform the technological boundaries of a country. America and Russia have good scientists and technologists because they inculcated a good technology backbone. If Isro is doing these missions, it’s good, because you attract the best brains and the young are hugely interested in space programmes.”

Ghosh is excited that Bengal would have a Centre for Excellence on Space Research. “The challenge now is to attract quality human resource to science and technology,” he said.

So does he see an Indian rover on Mars anytime soon? “It’s a necessary first step,” Ghosh signed off.

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